Learning the alphabet
It's extremely unsettling not being able to read. Even if you don't know where you are, and nobody can speak English, if you can say the name of the place you're trying to get to, or read a street sign, you have somewhere to start. When you can't even do that, it's kind of scary. And not all the signs, sadly, are so globally famous that you can work it out. I mentioned in the last post how we arrived in Sofia with instructions to get off the metro at station NDK. You can see NDK in this picture:
This map, with English names (and more importantly, Roman letters) is helpfully available on metrosofia.com, but you won't find it anywhere in the actual Metro Sofia, so we were more or less clueless as to where our station was or how to find it. When we eventually figured it out, there was no answer to the doorbell or phone. That turned out just to be because our Airbnb host was asleep, but she woke up after a fair bit of door-banging, and gave us a cute, cartoonish map of Sofia. Much more important than its map function, it had a panel with a key to the Cyrillic alphabet. So a lot of time in Sofia, and then in Belgrade, was spent stopped in front of boring government ministries, agonisingly reading out their names. (We didn't, obviously, understand them. But it was fun anyway.)
Sofia and Belgrade (unsurprisingly) have a lot of Orthodox churches. They don't generally allow photography on the inside, so the only photos I have are from what was undoubtedly the worst one, which clearly knew it and was trying to up its appeal somehow.
At the more impressive end, the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
This building is only a bit over a hundred years old. It's still one of the oldest things in the city: basically everything, it seemed, got destroyed in the process of getting Bulgarian independence from the Ottomans. The result is quite strange: the only really old things are really old; remnants of churches built by the Romans. In the basement of a church - we had to sneak past an Orthodox wedding (a lot of crowns are involved) to get there - we spent quite a while watching a video extolling the wisdom and might of Emperor Constantine. Apparently he loved Sofia, and Sofia was loving him back.
The other city lacking Roman script was Belgrade, where we managed to spend a Sunday, a Monday and half a Tuesday morning. That meant very little was open. We spent one day walking for several hours to a kind of beach-resort-theme-park on an island in the Danube which was really, really bad. (If you are from Australia, don't go to beaches in, well, most of Europe.) The highlight was the giant soft drink bottle fountain by the entrance (not done justice by this photo), and the series of impressive bridges we walked past twice.
I should say it was a really sunny, hot, ideal beach-going day. But the 'beach' was a kind of coarse, dirty sand, and the water was about as muddy and filthy-feeling as you'd expect Pan-European Transport Corridor VII to be. So yes, we made a mistake. But how were we to know? We hadn't even learned to read.